Local history buffs can double dip this summer with two exhibits focusing on
the life and artistry of Dunes photographer William Richardson.
“The Lives and Legacies of William and Flora Richardson” at the Westchester
Township History Museum runs in conjunction this summer with “The
Photography of William D. Richardson” at the Brauer Museum of Art at
The former explores the biographical aspects of Richardson and his wife
starting with his career as a chemist working for the Chicago meat packing
Swift & Co. to Flora Richardson’s establishment of the Richardson Wildlife
Sanctuary; the latter presents many examples of William Richardson’s talent
as a photographer in the early days of the medium and his contributions to
the Pictorialist movement.
William Richardson moved with his family from Niles, Mich. to Chicago in
1890 at age 14 and was already passionate about one subject in particular –
birds. At the Westchester exhibit, on display is Richardson’s bird journal
from the time he was 14. Museum curator Serena Sutliff and registrar Joan
Costello, who curated the project together, said Richardson wrote many
journals on birds in his lifetime but the one from his adolescence is the
only one which still exists. Sutliff said she was impressed by the precision
Richardson showed at a young age. “For a 14-year-old, it’s very detailed and
scientific,” Sutliff said.
A quote from that journal perfectly showcases his fondness for his feathered
“If I catch the part of a bird song between the rumble and roar of the city,
it is to me like a burst of sunshine on a wet and rainy day,” Richardson
Richardson was noted in his obituary as being active in many ornithological
societies and was “one of the best informed men in the country” when it came
to bird life.
Many of Richardson’s bird photos were made at Indiana Dunes. He would go to
great lengths to get the shot he wanted of a nesting bird and knew where to
look. For example, a type of dead tree would be the prime location for the
Great Horned Owl. Art enthusiasts on four continents took notice of
Richardson’s bird photos.
A little bit of
Richardson attended the University of Chicago but abandoned his studies to
work at Swift & Co. in 1899 and became Chief Chemist two years later. In
1909, he began The Journal of Industrial Chemistry, a first of its kind
magazine which he edited.
Costello said Richardson was responsible for finding uses for “rather
unsavory by-products of the slaughtering business” such as fertilizers, oils
and medicines. Swift & Co. was one of the largest meat packing companies in
the country due to its use of refrigerated rail cars. Richardson had a hand
in significant methods of preserving and curing meat.
William and Flora married in 1901 and lived in the Hyde Park area of
Chicago’s South Side, actively participating in the cultural atmosphere of
the time. Sutliff said they were exemplary as a modern couple, taking in
concerts, operas and lectures in Chicago. The pair collected hundreds of
books on science, art and philosophy. They were active members of the
Chicago Prairie Club and drew attention to the Dunes as a potential national
Numerous times a year, the Richardsons would escape to the Indiana Dunes
where they built a hut, which they called the “Sassafras Lodge” in the early
1900s where Dune Acres is now. Visitors to the Westchester museum can see
photos of the “Sassafras Lodge,” which more frankly looks like a teepee.
Alice Gray used lived inside when the Richardsons were not there. Gray is
more famously known as “Diana of the Dunes.”
The hut evolved into a more permanent cabin by 1910. The museum has the only
existing photograph of the cabin. William added on a separate darkroom which
later burned down. Flora formally purchased the acreage the cabin was on in
1940, four years after William’s death. She moved there permanently in 1958
and established the Wildlife Sanctuary that same year to preserve her and
William’s books, journals, and photographs.
Flora lived there for two years before her death in 1960 and used the
property as a nature preserve. She wrote about looking over the Dunes to her
friends and had a bench outside where she would avidly read poems. The
Westchester museum pays homage in the exhibit to this by including a bench
similar to Flora’s surrounded by sand.
The house was torn down in 2005 but the books and photographs are now stored
in the Richardson Archives at the Westchester Township History Museum.
Costello estimated the archives hold over 700 of William Richardson’s
photographs and “countless” glass slides.
Aside from birds, William’s other passion was his wife, Costello said, who
was a favorite subject for him to photograph. Both exhibits contain images
of Flora standing near the Art Institute of Chicago wearing a hat with a
wide bride brim, a very popular style at the time.
In 1912, he was sent by Swift & Co. to study chemical discoveries in Europe
and brought along his camera, capturing the essence of European cities like
Paris and Venice.
The photography exhibit at Brauer Museum of Art features nearly 40 images
Richardson made of the dunes, Europe and major cities. Many of them measure
approximately 20” x 15”, a ratio aspect of 4:3.
Gloria Ruff, who curated the “Photography” exhibit at the Brauer Museum with
director Gregg Hertzlieb, said Richardson was important to the Pictorialist
movement. Pictorial artists aimed to create rich, atmospheric landscapes in
their photographs that would look more like a painting. To achieve this
effect, Ruff said, Pictorialists would frequently hand color their pieces
and would use textured printing papers, striving for tonal effects rather
than clear definitions.
Richardson’s style takes a particularly careful and sensitive approach to
subjects that appear like a charcoal drawing, Ruff said. His use of shadow
and focus creates a complex mood and begs the viewer to look deeper into its
dreamlike atmosphere. The style conveys not a perfectly chosen moment but
more of a timeless feel that only the photographic medium could offer.
“It was all done by a chemical process,” said Ruff, who said the
Pictorialist movement was not widely embraced. “People just didn’t realize
then what all went into developing film and photographs.”
Museum visitors who study the pictures carefully can see Richardson pressed
in his initials, giving them his signature seal.
Not only do the images make note of Richardson’s experiences and interests,
but all reveal his thoughts about the craft, Ruff said.
Richardson joined the ranks of notable Pictorial photographers who initially
were categorized as members of the Photo Secession, the most notable being
Alfred Stieglitz, Ruff said, who the Brauer Museum has studied before.
“He did so much more than just take pictures,” Sutliff said making the point
that Richardson’s talents went beyond the camera. He also designed Christmas
cards which he and Flora sent out in the late 1920s, the most favorite being
the one with Richardson’s baby owl photograph.
In 1911, William Richardson devised a way for his images to be projected
with his creation of the “baloptican,” patented by the Bausch and Lamb
Optical Co. The device projected lantern slides, maps or drawings onto a
surface by use of reflected light rather than transmitted light. Others used
Richardson’s baloptican to study maps and copy texts.
Visitors to the Westchester museum exhibit can get an up-close look at the
tool and a breakdown of its parts.
“Baloptican is our new favorite word around here,” Costello said.
Sand in Your
The Westchester museum adds a treat for those who remember watching
educational filmstrips on a projector in school. In the section of the
exhibit that pays tribute to Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary, a DVD was made
of “Sand in Your Shoes” from the 1960s produced by the RWS and narrated by
University of Chicago botanist Erma Pilz.
After Flora’s death, the RWS carried on her wishes to spread environmental
education and promote study of the dunes. Today, the organization exists as
the Flora Richardson Foundation and supports the institutions that preserve
and educate residents about the dunes. The Foundation partnered with the
Westchester Twp. and Brauer museums, loaning many of the photographs for the
Featured members of the RWS who are honored in the Westchester exhibit
include former secretary/treasurer Jean Sprague, librarians/custodians Ben
and Janet McKay, and former directors Eileen Fielding and Elma Thiele.
Relics of the original Richardson sanctuary are presented for viewing
pleasure. Included are an oversized mailbox and one of its mailing cartons.
Cartons were mailed free of charge to schools, nursing homes and non-profit
organizations containing slides, audio tapes and filmstrips.
The two exhibits mark the first time the Westchester Twp. History Museum has
collaborated on a project with the Brauer Museum of Art. Interest in the
complementary exhibits grew, Hertzlieb said, when he and Ruff visited
Westchester Twp. Museum and were impressed by the Richardson photographs.
“Working with the Westchester Township History Museum was an absolute
pleasure, and we are simply delighted to share Richardson’s fine
photographic work with our community,” Hertzlieb said.
The Westchester exhibit, which is free to the public, runs until Sept. 2.
Museum hours are 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Tours can be
made by appointment at (219)983-9715.
The Brauer exhibit “The Photography of William Richardson” runs through Aug.
5 at 1709 Chapel Drive in Valparaiso. Hours are 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. More
information can be found at